No 18 - September 2002
I went to Birmingham on my own, on the train, to buy books. It was a scary thing for me to do, and the fact that I had done it made me feel triumphant. I treated myself to a cup of tea and a cake in the Woolworths café. A little old lady came to sit by me. She wore lots of bright salmon-pink rouge plastered onto her cheeks, and bright turquoise eyeshadow made her electric-green eyes seem even more prominent and startling. On her fingers she wore a collection of costume jewellery rings, one of which she gave to me because, she said, it was a lucky ring. ‘Not that it ever did me much good, mind.’ she added, laughing hoarsely (she chain-smoked).
‘Have you not had a good life, then?’ I enquired politely, offering her one of my own cigarettes because she’d been shaking her own nearly empty packet with a most sorrowful look on her old face.
‘A life spent exchanging one bad thing for another. I’ll not bore you with details. Like Mrs Macbeth’s stains, some things won’t wash out.’
‘I’m sorry.’ I really was sorry: I rather liked eccentric people.
She rubbed her dirty hands over mine, blackening them, but she ordered a large plate of wholemeal buttered scones for us to eat. Grease dripped down our chins, which we daintily wiped away with rough paper napkins, marking the clean paper with translucent yellow stains.
‘Didn’t stand up for myself, see,’ the old lady continued, her mouth full of buttered bun; the half bun on her plate had a dainty frill of pink lipstick around its chewed edges. ‘I had a man friend, and he wanted to marry me, but I was an only child. I had to stay at home with my parents, look after them when they became infirm. You know how it is.’
She walked with me around the modern shopping arcade. ‘Culture shock!’ she said; she was used to a more sedate kind of shopping experience. I hated those fancy shopping malls, they made me feel claustrophobic and gave me bad headaches and I was so clumsy that I kept bumping into people in that weird half-light that those places tend to go in for. I thought it was rather awful the way I went crashing into people: people with whom I didn’t really want to have any contact.
My new-found friend wandered off and I hovered around wondering which way to go, and in the end swerved right off balance and slap into the middle of two black kids. They stared at me and looked quite annoyed, and being embarrassed I dodged into the nearest shop. It happened to be a “Body Shop” and it reeked of a wild mixture of different smells: patchouli; strawberry; sandalwood; jasmine; musk; tea rose: all bombarding my nose with this awful, mixed up aroma. It smelled like dead embalmed bodies, it was that heavy and nauseating.
The little old lady returned to my side with two cartons of orange juice. She had a theory that people walking along drinking juice out of a carton look sort of cool.
‘Cans aren’t cool,’ she declared. ‘That fizzy pop stuff’s bad for your teeth, and so acid it must burn up your insides. The bubbles eat into your entrails the way sulphuric acid eats into metal. I have a theory that it probably is sulphuric acid that they put into these various cola drinks.’
We sat on a stone bench in the middle of the arcade and eavesdropped. Behind us were two beautiful Indian girls in colourful saris.
‘It’s the sheets, you see,’ the older one said. ‘There will be no blood on the sheets.’
As we came out of the shopping arcade, we saw some earnest looking young people selling copies of home-Xeroxed newspapers. We couldn’t ascertain whether they were Communists or Class War or what and didn’t really want to get collared by them whoever they were.
‘They’re all much the same, in the end,’ said the old lady. ‘All just stirring up troubles that can’t be resolved. Half-cock revolutionary claptrap. Absurd.’
She told me that she had to go home because she didn’t like to leave her dog on its own for too long. I was quite sorry to see her go but she’d given me her address and asked me to pop in for tea some time. Perhaps she’d escaped from a loony bin or something. I didn’t think I’d ever see her again, but that’s life, isn’t it? Things pass, things change.
I carried on walking round town because I didn’t have anything else particular to do. There were buskers all over the place, entertaining the shoppers or else getting on their nerves. Sometimes I like to see buskers, and sometimes not. it depended, really, on who they were and if they looked really poor and needy or only doing It for a laugh; students doing it for extra cash to make up their grants, that type of thing.
There was one man playing a banjo and singing. He sat on the floor and I noticed that he didn’t have any legs. He wasn’t much good as a banjo player, to be honest. Some people gave him money because they felt sorry for him but other people, including me. just turned away and tried to look really interested in the nearest shop window display. It was partly embarrassment, partly a feeling of not wanting to be associated in any way with unfortunate people. Anyway, I couldn’t give him new legs, and anything else I might be able to do for him would just be superfluous and at the same time not enough.
But I couldn’t get the man with no legs out of my mind. I felt angry with him for flaunting his missing limbs, as if forcing people to see him like that, his banjo a substitute limb. Discordant, like fear and sorrow. Then I felt mean for thinking uncharitable thoughts, and tried to imagine how I’d feel if I was disabled in some major way.
In the end I drifted off to a department store and bought a beret. I did briefly think that I could have given my beret money to the man playing the banjo. It could’ve bought him a nice meal or something. I felt dreadful then, really mean and low. What a selfish person I must be! I knew that I wasn’t the only one, and that there were loads of people meaner and more evil than me, but I felt so full of shit, and stupid tears began to well up behind my eyes.
In a visionary moment, I guessed that I was probably no more or less happy than the man with the banjo. So many different people, and none to love.
The next time I walked down that particular road, two kids were helping the banjo player into a wheelchair. His hat was very full, so you could no longer see its stained, greasy lining. I could see some ten pence pieces in the hat, and even one or two coins of higher denomination. The people with him seemed like friendly, caring people so I walked away with an easier conscience and down into a subway. It smelled horrible: piss and rotting fruit. A litterbin had been turned over by vandals, and it spewed dead litter that blocked my path. I had to climb over that stinking pile of other people’s garbage. Holy shit! It comes to something when you end up in that kind of state!
The other side of the pile of garbage, a black tramp with string around his waist danced a little jig right in front of me. I didn’t know how to react to be ideologically right on, something I always strive to be, at least in public. So what happened was that I put on my new beret and walked past him, using my hands to feel along the wet subway wails, pretending to be blind.
I stupefied that old tramp, all right! He looked at me quite oddly and stopped jigging as I walked past. I didn’t much like being stared at, but I laughed with him and adjusted my beret to a jaunty angle before running off into the light, beyond the subway wails and into the flailing arms of the woman I’d met earlier.
‘My name,’ she said, ‘is Anastasia.’
‘What, the Tsar’s daughter?’
‘The same name. We’re not related.’ That made me feel a bit sad. I wished she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, however historically impossible that would have been. Her real name was probably something like Muriel or Iris.
I followed her, I don’t know why. She lived in a little terraced house and in the front room she had a dead cat - a real one, stuffed by a taxidermist.
‘Put Tinker under the sofa if you don’t like him.’ Her house smelt of wee, but it was cosy and I felt safe there.
‘Poor little thing,’ she said, but I didn’t know if she meant me or Tinker. But she stroked my head, so she must have meant me. ‘Shall I read your cards for you?’
‘I don’t believe in all that. Besides, I don’t want to know my future.’
‘My mother was a gypsy who had second sight.’
‘My mum said I wasn’t All There.’ Doctors and teachers had agreed with her, though they used different words. I didn’t have a dad, with or without an opinion.
‘You’ve probably got second sight, too, then.’
‘I don’t think so. I think I would have noticed.’
‘Listen to me, then. It doesn’t matter what your mum thinks. It doesn’t matter a jot. I’m all alone now so I can pretend to be anything I want. Mad old Anastasia, that’s me. It’s up to you to decide who you want to be and forget all that tripe about not being All There. You quite clearly exist and that’s all that counts.’
I didn’t think she was potty at all now, so perhaps I wasn’t, either. Or perhaps we both were. Or perhaps everyone else was. Perhaps the shopping mail had been a gigantic asylum, full of ordinary people, all of them bonkers in some way or other.
‘Be what you want to be,’ she said, spooning too much sugar into my tea. ‘A different place and person every day, if you like.’
I could be Morgana or Marie Antoinette. I could live at Elsinore or the Court of King Arthur. Guinevere, Boadicea, Mary Queen of Scots.
I gulped down the sugary tea, feeling for once more like a traveller on an adventure than a pathetic victim. Goodbye, I said, to Anastasia. And then I remembered she’d said she had to get back for her dog. But there hadn’t been any sort of dog; only a mangy old stuffed cat, called Tinker.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The